The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Whoever in discussion adduces authority uses not intellect but memory."... ...Leonardo da Vinci.

Commentary of the Day - January 20, 2004:  No Surprises?  Guest commentary by Craig M. Newmark.

One of my graduate students visits me during office hours.  She asks me a question about the course material.  A few sentences into my answer, she interrupts me and completes, perfectly, the answer I was going to give.  She asks me a second question, I start to answer, and she again interrupts and completes my answer.  This happens two more times before I say, "You seem to know this material. What's going on?"  She replies that she agrees, she does know the material; she's dumbfounded, therefore, why she has made only B's on the course tests.

We discuss her performance on the exams.  She indicates that on the questions that ask her to repeat part of the lecture notes, or to cite something from the text, she does very well.  On most of the other questions she does not.  While she tries to be polite, she is exasperated, angry.  After a few minutes, I say -- my wife has explained to me the new educational technique of "active listening" -- "Let me see if I can state what is bothering you.  I could tell you before the test what to study, what material you should memorize to do well, but I'm not doing that."  She smiles a little and says, "Yes." I continue, "I could do that, I could tell you, exactly, all that you need to know.  I could tell you what to memorize.  But I don't.  And you can't understand why I don't."  She smiles more broadly. "Yes.  Yes!  That's it.  Why don't you tell us?"

This illustrates what I believe is an underappreciated and growing problem in higher education: a large number of undergraduates, as well as even some graduate students, believe that the instructor's main function is to tell the students what to memorize.  And if the students duly so memorize, they believe they deserve A's.

The students are apparently not alone in believing this.  A number of guides to good teaching for college faculty suggest it.  Consider an excerpt from Northern Illinois University's Instructional Guide for University Faculty, p. I-15:

A good rule to follow is, no surprises on tests.  Everything that shows up on a test should have been previewed several times in the course, in class, in readings, and in assignments.  Some instructors will argue that as professionals our students will
constantly have to deal with unexpected problems.  True enough, but they will not be presented with these problems and told that they have to solve them in 50 minutes without consulting anyone and possibly without being able to look anything up.  Their ability to deal with a totally unrealistic situation like that should not be the main determinant of whether they should be certified to practice as professionals.
(The Guide goes on to suggest that instructors distribute a study guide a week before each test, a study guide that is "thorough and detailed, with statements of every type of question you might include on the test . . .")

With all due respect to the authors of the guide, what they characterize as "totally unrealistic" applies equally well to any timed test, from the SAT to the bar exam.  Do they wish to dispense with all such tests?

They also don't seem to realize that solving any classroom problem under a time constraint is unrealistically easy in an important way.  The unexpected problems outside the classroom -- the ones that the guide must concede students will have to deal with "constantly" -- will tend to be much messier than problems posed on a classroom test.  For a classroom test, the student knows that there is a single correct answer to any question and that the answer draws from a relatively small number of concepts presented in that course.  Many real world problems, on the other hand, do not have single, correct answers and they demand that the student draw from several courses, maybe even several disciplines, to develop an answer.  But how will students learn to answer such more complicated questions if they can't even extend to new questions the concepts learned in a single course?  A recent report, Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College, sponsored by the Association of American Colleges and Universities states (p. 39), "Outsiders who find college graduates unprepared for solving problems in the workplace question whether the colleges are successfully educating their students to think . . ."

I think college tests should include surprise questions.

Let me be clear: I think many, maybe even the majority, of classroom test questions should be of the "no surprises" variety.  The professor must tell the students very clearly what definitions, theories, and ideas are important.  And the students must memorize that material and demonstrate that they have done so by answering simple, straightforward questions.

But the best performing students, the students who have understood the material deeply, the students who merit A's and 'ís, should also be able to use the course material to answer some "new" questions.  That's what the world outside the classroom will demand of them.  The college instructor should, of course, give students ample practice at applying the material.  What I am arguing is that the professor should not provide examples of every possible type of question; he or she should not give tests that ask students only to memorize each of the possible types of question along with the answer for each type.

If the instructor tells students that they will have to answer some surprise questions on tests and if the instructor explains why, the students might well accept that the instructor has their long-term best interests in mind.  After my student asked me plaintively why I didn't tell her exactly what to memorize, I asked her, "Don't you think a college course should teach you to do more than memorize?"

After a long silence, she finally said, "Yes, I guess it should."

©2004 Craig M. Newmark
Craig Newmark is an Associate Professor of Economics at North Carolina State University.

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© 2004 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.